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File:The Memphis Blues 1.jpg

Sheet music for "The Memphis Blues"

The Memphis blues is a style of blues music that was created in the 1910s – 1930s by Memphis-area musicians like Frank Stokes, Sleepy John Estes, Furry Lewis and Memphis Minnie. The style was popular in vaudeville and medicine shows, and was associated with Memphis' main entertainment area, Beale Street. W.C. Handy, the "Father of the Blues" published The Memphis Blues. In lyrics, the phrase is often used to describe a depressed mood.[2]

Memphis played an important role in the development of electric blues, rock and roll, blues rock, and heavy metal music.[1]


"The Memphis Blues" (1914)
"The Memphis Blues" (1914), composed by W. C. Handy in 1912 and recorded by Victor Military Band in 1914. First known commercial recording of Handy's first commercially successful blues composition.

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In addition to guitar-based blues, jug bands, such as Gus Cannon's Jug Stompers and the Memphis Jug Band, were extremely popular practitioners of Memphis blues. The jug band style emphasized the danceable, syncopated rhythms of early jazz and a range of other archaic folk styles. It was played on simple, sometimes homemade, instruments such as harmonicas, violins, mandolins, banjos, and guitars, backed by washboards, kazoo, guimbarde and jugs blown to supply the bass.

Electric blues[]

After World War II, as African-Americans left the Mississippi Delta and other impoverished areas of the south for urban areas, many musicians gravitated to Memphis' blues scene, changing the classic Memphis blues sound. Musicians such as Howlin' Wolf, Willie Nix, Ike Turner, and B.B.King performed on Beale Street and in West Memphis, and recorded some of the classic electric blues, rhythm and blues and rock & roll records for labels such as Sun Records. Sam Phillips' Sun Records company recorded musicians such as Howlin' Wolf (before he moved to Chicago), Willie Nix, Ike Turner, and B.B.King.[3]

Electric Memphis blues featured "explosive, distorted electric guitar work, thunderous drumming, and fierce, declamatory vocals."[4] Musicians involved with Sun Records included Joe Hill Louis, Willie Johnson and Pat Hare who introduced electric guitar techniques such as distortion and power chords, anticipating elements of heavy metal music.[5][6] T-Bone Burnett considers Howlin' Wolf's 1951 song "How Many More Years" to be the first rock and roll song,[7] and considers Howlin' Wolf to be the father of rock and roll.[8]

These players had a strong influence on later musicians in these styles, notably the early rock & rollers and rockabillies, many of whom also recorded for Sun Records. After Phillips discovered Elvis Presley in 1954, the Sun label turned to the rapidly expanding white audience and started recording mostly rock 'n' roll.[9]

Memphis blues musicians[]

See also[]

  • List of Memphis blues musicians
  • "Stuck Inside of Mobile with the Memphis Blues Again", a song by Bob Dylan


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 Miller, Jim (1980). The Rolling Stone illustrated history of rock & roll. New York: Rolling Stone. ISBN 0394513223. Retrieved 5 July 2012. "Black country bluesmen made raw, heavily amplified boogie records of their own, especially in Memphis, where guitarists like Joe Hill Louis, Willie Johnson (with the early Howlin' Wolf band) and Pat Hare (with Little Junior Parker) played driving rhythms and scorching, distorted solos that might be counted the distant ancestors of heavy metal." 
  2. Tony Bolden, Afro-Blue: Improvisations in African American Poetry and Culture, 2004, University of Illinois Press, ISBN 978-0-252-02874-8
  3. J. Broven, Record Makers and Breakers: Voices of the Independent Rock ʹnʹ Roll Pioneers Music in American Life (University of Illinois Press, 2009), pp. 149–154.
  5. Robert Palmer, "Church of the Sonic Guitar", pp. 13-38 in Anthony DeCurtis, Present Tense, Duke University Press, 1992, pp. 24-27. ISBN 0-8223-1265-4.
  6. DeCurtis, Anthony (1992). Present Tense: Rock & Roll and Culture (4. print. ed.). Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press. ISBN 0822312654. "His first venture, the Phillips label, issued only one known release, and it was one of the loudest, most overdriven, and distorted guitar stomps ever recorded, "Boogie in the Park" by Memphis one-man-band Joe Hill Louis, who cranked his guitar while sitting and banging at a rudimentary drum kit." 
  7. Alastair Mackay, "Cosmic Ceiling Tiles, Elvis Presley, And The Abiding Genius Of Sam Phillips: What Made Sun The Crucible of Rock'n'Roll?", Alternatives to Valium, 2 August 2012. Retrieved 20 February 2014
  9. V. Bogdanov, C. Woodstra, S. T. Erlewine, All music guide to the blues: the definitive guide to the blues (Backbeat Books, 3rd edn., 2003), pp. 690–691.

External links[]